Rejecting the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)

It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.

Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.

Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.

From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?

It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)

There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.

Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.

Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.

None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.

18 comments so far

  1. Constance W. Collins on

    I agree with your post Chris, but it seems to me that it has already been proven that multiple programs focusing on a common goal are inefficient and put an undue strain on the factories. For example, while participating on a Corporate Social Responsibility panel in 2009 held by Stanford Business, Monica Oberkofler, then at Gap, spoke of audit fatigue. Brands were setting their own standard for the height fire extinguishers should be hung. Factories were moving the fire extinguishers from one hook to another based on what brand was visiting. The issue is having working fire extinguishers, prominently displayed at a safe height, not utilizing 6 different hooks because each brand/company dictates it hangs at a different height. I worry we may find ourselves in a similar position in Bangladesh if a common solution is not agreed upon.

  2. cage3 on

    Reblogged this on Mother's Garden.

    • billyblaine on

      How about utterly rejecting the Paradigm that in order to provide the West with cheap throw away clothing the Bangladeshi worker must endure such horrific unsafe working conditions!

      • Chris MacDonald on

        What’s the alternative? Bangladeshi’s have few options. They would be much, much worse off without the opportunity to work in garment factories.

  3. nicholasnonsense on

    Reblogged this on Nicholas' Nonsense and commented:
    This is an article about Walmart rejecting the Bangladesh Safety Accord. MacDonald makes the point that Walmart may be rejecting the accord out of a belief that they can do at least as good if not better with their own safety measures. I can see how Walmart would want to increase safety measures on its own terms without any arbitrary rules and regulations tacked on. Still, declining the accord rings selfish. However, if I were Walmart I would want to maximize profits while still implementing safety measures. Only time will tell what Walmart’s true intentions are. I just hope they decide to really make safety a priority.

  4. segmation on

    Your blog is a good one and people need to really think of their decisions and how it impacts others. Thank you for making others more aware with your writing.

  5. broadsideblog on

    With all due respect — as a fellow Canadian and who has written a book about retail work and low-wage labor — I don’t buy this. You use of the word “efficiency” to describe Walmart’s labor practices is a hell of a euphemism. In the U.S., as I’m sure you know (?), there are full-time workers for that company on food stamps (corporate welfare much?) because Walmart’s dedication to “efficiency” means they cannot even pay their basic bills on their wages.

    As to the “it’s work, isn’t it?” argument…Really? If these factories were staffed by people we knew and whose kids played with ours, (as was once the case in the U.S. and Canada — see Kelsey Timmerman’s book), would we indulge in a massive shrug? It is a separate issue, albeit still troubling, to pay workers pennies per hour and expect them to work in brutal, inhumane and dangerous conditions.

    No one, anywhere, deserves to die for the “privilege” of having a job.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to call Walmart efficient. Whatever else they might be, they are a highly efficient organization. The fact that their employees are (like those at many other organizations) paid relatively little is a separate matter.

      As for your second point: luckily, it’s been quite a few decades since North Americans had to put up with the kind of working conditions Bangladeshis have to endure. But their situation is not like ours. Sadly, garment factory jobs are the BEST jobs some people there have access to. That doesn’t mean “anything goes,” and I never said it did.

      • on

        Always interested in all sides of an issue, I stopped by your blog. Regarding efficiency, Christopher Matthews said it best, “Walmart’s relentless drive for efficiency has bankrupted companies, put downward pressure on wages and upset a retail culture that some believe was less efficient but more personal and aesthetically pleasing. In this sense, Walmart’s story is the story of American capitalism. It is the story of an unwavering pursuit of innovation and efficiency and the casualties of that pursuit.”

        Read more:

        We have to thank the unions that we don’t have the working conditions in Bangladesh.

        What has Walmart done to contribute to communities?

        Becoming an informed consumer has become a complex task, but somehow I can’t worry about Walmart’s legal issues when little children are crying because their mother won’t be coming home from work.

  6. Loren Riley on

    I really enjoyed this post (and your responses to some of the readers that didn’t seem to enjoy it as much). I often feel like people choose to see only one side of the coin, and that’s too bad.

    I don’t think the question should EVER be: “what is right for people”? because value judgements are based in transitory and often emotional logic, which is to say, no logic at all. ‘What’s the alternative?’ may be the absolute best question that can be used to find a legitimate answer to real problems. I think sometimes we get so caught up in hating large companies (which I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge Walmart fan so it’s hard for me not to be biased against them) we just forget to ask ourselves ‘what’s the alternative?’

    What WOULD in ACTUALITY happen to Bangladeshi workers if the garment factory market moved to another, cheaper, less legislated country? Or outsourcing became expensive enough that those jobs were simply not outsourced anymore? Or companies had to downsize because of increased overhead? And yeah, maybe Walmart should sign the safety accord, but we shouldn’t just blindly pretend the world is black and white and that signing the safety accord wouldn’t cost anyone but Walmart anything. Of course it would. Let’s pretend that matters too…

  7. Helen Trejo on

    Great post! I wrote one that gives an overview of what major brands are trying to do to improve their supply chain in relation to people:

  8. georgesony on

    Nice article but enjoyed the above comments also, yeah there’s an issue with Walmart. Personally i think they have to solve it. Actual fact is everyone wanna make money by any reason, but also they have some social responsibilities. Now all of you are addressing the safety issue but there’s also other issue to talking about. Beside the safety issue there is an another issue to talk about and that is the wages. Do you know the minimum wage of BD workers. It’s 35-40$ per month. It’s horrible. If you think that the Bangladesh Gov have to work on that you are pertially wrong. not only the govt. but buyers also can fix this problem. Undoubtedly i can say that Walmart, Nike, Gap or other international Brands pay the cheapest rate for their order whatever the quantity is, than the China also. So plz show some responsibility here rather than making money only.

  9. the_maverick_libertarian on

    There is no question that safety conditions and indeed general working conditions need to be improved, yet there is something about a a safety accord that just seems to be papering over the cracks.

    Really there needs to be a serious examination of the oppressive nature the government in countries like Bangladesh and their willingness to facilitate oppressive work practices.

    For a real free market to work, there must be total self-ownership of individuals operating in that free market. Disastrous and oppressive governments create a the very lack of freedom that is required for a harmonious free market.

    Ideally there must be a move towards less government in these countries. Less taxation, more investment. More economic freedom. If the people of Bangladesh had opportunities outside of sweatshops, then companies would be incentivized to make working conditions better for them.

  10. hqas on

    If factory workers in Asia, in particular Bangladesh, Pakistan and others would not suffer how can the Western countries can enjoy all the goods and products. It’s appalling that the so-called enlightened continents, America, Europe and Australian companies capitulate on the vulnerabilities of poor factor workers who hardly make $30 a month. I would say colonialism era did not end, it’s just craftier, dirtier and FANCIER now a days!

    • Chris MacDonald on

      How about asking the reverse question: If people in Western countries can’t enjoy Asian-made goods and products, how can factory workers in Asia have jobs?

      • hqas on

        Fair enough. This is a very complicated issue but I’m trying to respond keep it short. The world economy is based on job opportunity and delivery of products/services. Supply and Demand I understand but I have a huge problem with how poor Asian countries are being manipulation and bleed dry due to their poverty in the process. Than also the western attitude is by and large racist, snobbish to actually believe that it’s “DUE” to get what they can from the poorer sections of the globe by the standards of economy and money that they themselves have created without any input from those slaving, dying and trying to survive. P.S: Every time I hear my Western colleagues commenting oh we went to Pakistan to buy cheap carpets, and furniture etc, I stay silent but with my field experience I know that it’s under-age laborers making those carpets etc. Plus it never fails to amaze me, how in this manner people insult you and pretend that they are giving you an elevated status by purchasing from the lowly one that we are supposed to have. I am very thankful to have had this opportunity to respond back and will also like to hear your feedback.

  11. ConstanceC on

    I do not believe the answer is pulling all of our production out of countries like Bangladesh, but surely Chris you think we can do better in terms of working conditions, workers’ rights, and remuneration. Yes, these workers need the jobs provided by Western brands but that does not mean they should be forced to work in unsafe factories for less than a living wage.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Constance: Of course. No one should be forced, by another human being, to do any kind of work work. Ever. That is entirely consistent with what I’ve already said.

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